The most famous temple in all of Cambodia is easily Angkor Wat, and it’s easy to see why: the 12th century temple is surrounded by picturesque rice paddies and features impressive towers, intricate carvings and stunning sanctuaries that feel like something out of an interactive “Indiana Jones” movie. Situated within a complex of roughly 200 temples in and around Siem Reap known as Angkor, this UNESCO Heritage Site is, unfortunately, regularly overrun with tourists.
While it’s still worth a visit, there are plenty of other beautiful temples in Cambodia where you won’t feel like the other tourists are crowding your experience. Here are five Cambodian temples that receive a lot less love than Angkor Wat but are just as deserving.
1. Phnom Chissor
Located not far from the city of Phnom Penh, this small Hindu temple is impressive, and it was built at least 100 years before Angkor Wat. Set on a hill that provides exceptional views of green deltas and breathtaking rice fields, the elderly monks who live in Phnom Chissor are friendly and kind to visitors and the neighborhood children who occasionally run through the place.
2. Sambor Prei Kuk
The ancient kingdom of Chenla was located here around 1,400 years ago, and roughly 140 temples and monuments still stand at this site today. Because it isn’t as popular as Angkor Wat, this impressive complex of square stone walls, lion sculptures, towers and shiva lingmans — stones that contain sacred energy — is being slowly overtaken by the jungle in which it sits. While this clearly spells ruin for the place over time, for now, it only adds to the hushed and solitary experience of the place where you can’t escape ruminating on the mortality of individuals and entire civilizations. Located near the town of Kampong Thom, which sits about halfway between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, it will take you about two hours by taxi to reach Sambor Prei Kuk from Kampong Thom, but it’s well worth it.
BENG MEALEA. PHOTO COURTESY OF LAWRENCE MURRAY VIA FLICKR.
3. Phreah Vihear
Set on top of a cliff that stands over 1,500 feet high and sits on the border of Cambodia and Thailand, this temple is claimed by both countries, a dispute which has led to ongoing hostilities between the two. Constructed sometime during the 9th and 12th centuries, Preah Vihear is a magnificent structure with stone buildings, soaring courtyards and ancient staircases that connect varying levels before leading to a precipice with a spectacular view.
4. Koh Ker
Located about 60 miles north of Siem Reap, Koh Ker was built in the 10th century and features about 50 temples that are becoming as much a part of the jungle as the jungle is becoming a part of them. A couple of temples stand out when you visit, such as the Red Temple, named for the color of its bricks, which held the king’s thrown room and Prasat Thom. The latter is a towering semi-pyramid that is based on Mount Meru, a sacred mountain in Hindu, Jain and Buddhist cosmology that is believed to be the center of all physical and spiritual reality.
5. Beng Mealea
This sandstone temple was originally built to be a Hindu temple, but also features Buddhist carvings. Largely unrestored, thick trees and brush thrive throughout its towers and courtyards. For years it was unreachable, but the new road that goes to Koh Ker passes Beng Mealea, which means it’s seeing a lot more visitors than it used to. Built around the 12th century, there are detailed carvings of events from Hindu lore, including Vishnu’s birth and the Churning of the Sea of Milk.
Touring Cambodia is almost synonymous with touring Angkor Wat, and while that temple complex is truly a treasure, the massive numbers of visitors it sees each day make it hard to experience as something other than a tourist attraction. For a cultural experience that can also be spiritual, take the time to visit these other five temples, where history, culture and the inevitable power of nature provide an experience that won’t involve waiting in line.
Top photo credit: BUDDHAS. PHOTO COURTESY OF JAN VIA FLICKR.